PONTE VEDRA BEACH, Fla. — By now, we’ve learned to expect the unusual gang of suspects on the Players Championship leaderboard.
Yes, the Stadium Course has produced its share of great champions, such as Tiger Woods, Phil Mickelson, Greg Norman, Nick Price, Hal Sutton, David Duval and Fred Couples. But it has also produced its share of surprises, including Craig Perks, Stephen Ames, Fred Funk, Jodie Mudd, Calvin Peete and near-misses like Scott Gump, Paul Goydos, Tommy Tolles and Phil Blackmar.
Phil Blackmar? You heard me.
Anything can happen at the Players and, as Yogi Berra probably said, it usually does. The course doesn’t favor any one style of play. You can’t overpower it. Anything goes this week.
Rory McIlroy and Ernie Els missing the cut while Zach Johnson, Kevin Na and Matt Kuchar share the lead? A Harris English sighting? Why, in the name of Tim Clark, not? Charlie Wi, Martin Laird, Jonathan Byrd, Adam Scott and Brian Davis all hovering around the lead? Not shocking in the least.
This is a course where precision reigns supreme. Anyone who gets control of his swing and his putter for a week can shock the world. The Players, more than any other big event, should be renamed the Wide, Wide Open.
Johnson, the Iowa native who was once a surprising Masters champion, hardly counts as a surprise anymore. His specialty is holing putts, and that works well at any course. Johnson racked up five birdies on the back nine and shot 66 to get to eight under. Na shot 69 in the afternoon wave and has made 16 birdies in the first two rounds.
“I’ll take 16 birdies on the weekend and sit in the clubhouse,” Na said.
Kuchar, meanwhile, shot 68 to join them at the top of the leaderboard. English was a shot back at seven under, and five players were at six under.
“Some of the young guys ask me, what’s the key here,” said Johnson, who ranks 25th in the Tour’s strokes gained-putting statistic. “The key here is getting the ball in the fairway. The greens are small, the fairways are narrow so you’ve got to get the ball in the fairway to control your spin into these greens because they’re so firm.”
That’s one way of explaining that this track requires precision. Charlie Wi ranks among the Tour’s better putters, and he makes a lot of birdies. Kevin Na ranks 15th in driving accuracy. Laird, Scott and Byrd are excellent ball-strikers with good all-around games. Kuchar is 18th in driving accuracy and 23rd in greens hit in regulation, and don’t forget, he finished third at the Masters after he made an electrifying eagle at the 15th hole in the final round. These guys may not be the usual suspects, but they fit the profile of precision players.
One exception is English, who’s been a star at every level of golf. He’s a power player who ranks eighth in driving distance. He made a Walker Cup team as an amateur, won a Nationwide Tour event as a collegian and this year, his first on the PGA Tour, he played his way into the Players with five top-20 finishes, including an eighth at Harbour Town. He’s one of those guys who, at 6-foot-3, has the look of a future star. Born in Valdosta, he played golf at Georgia and has a bit of a drawl. He hits it a mile and played his way through Q-school last December.
He made a run at the Honda Classic but, in contention for the first time, faded with a closing 77. He figures to get many, many more chances.
English played several junior tournaments at the Stadium Course, so he’s got a little background here.
“I’ve watched every year on TV for sure,” he said, “and Sawgrass is a course that everybody knows hole by hole. Tuesday was my first real practice round here, and I enjoyed it.”
English managed seven birdies en route to a 67 and a seven-under-par total, one behind Johnson, who had eight birdies.
Wi had seven birdies, too.
“I hit the ball really close today,” he said. “The greens at Sawgrass are so difficult. If you relax for a second and miss it in the wrong spot, it’s very easy to make a bogey or double, and I’ve done that many times.”
One of Wi’s highlights was holing an 18-foot birdie putt at the eighth, a 236-yard par-3 that played as tough as any hole in Friday’s warm, sunny second round.
Johnson had numerous highlights, something that hasn’t been a common event in recent months, and that fact isn’t lost on him.
“I haven’t been in contention a ton since 2010, probably only a handful,” Johnson admitted. “I know everybody says I’m a good putter and I appreciate that, but I feel like I’ve made really good progress even since 2010. I know winning is so difficult and the fact that I’ve won six times, I know what I did then — I putted really, really well. So it’s not frustrating [that I haven’t been winning] because these guys are really, really good, and I wasn’t sharp enough.”
Tiger Woods was considerably sharper after his opening 74. He made four birdies in a row, starting at the eighth, and shot 68 to get to two under, safely on the good side of the cut line.
McIlroy, meanwhile, may look back fondly at 2011, when he skipped this tournament. He shot 72-76 and missed the cut for the third time in three tries.
Other notables who are headed home included former U.S. Open champion Graeme McDowell; Ryder Cup captain Davis Love; Hunter Mahan; Steve Stricker and Vijay Singh.